Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Are Computer Science graduates computer illiterate?

S P Maj, G Robbins, D Shaw, K W Duley
Department of Computer Science
Edith Cowan University


Universities operate in a competitive market and given the increasingly difficult operating conditions fundamental questions must be asked and addressed. In particular, what do students expect from a graduate qualification? Certainly the answer to this question is clear (Campus Leaders, 1996) :
Although graduates come from diverse backgrounds and ages, the predominant reason why they have gone to university was to get skills, knowledge and a qualification that would assist them in either gaining employment or enhancing their prospects for promotion or a more rewarding job.
The 1996 ECU Orientation Student Survey (Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering) rated job prospects as the most important factor in choosing to study at ECU (1996 Orientation student survey). However, computer science is subject to rapid technological changes that influence expectations of both students and employers. What are these changes and what effect do they have on curriculum? Finally, what do employers expect of computer science graduates? This study is an attempt to address these issues within the restricted scope of computer and network support.

Market analysis

The principal author visited a range of industrial and commercial organisations which resulted in a set of guidelines for the type of skills expected of computer science graduates entering the field of computer and network support. Two major themes were identified. Computer Science graduates should be able to perform first line maintenance on a Personal Computer (PC) and have PC network skills that could be used immediately with little further training. First line maintenance may be taken to mean on-site, in-situ problem identification and correction. Rapid developments in integrated circuit fabrication technology allied to ever decreasing unit price have resulted in low cost PCs with a standard architecture and modular construction. Accordingly, PC support is typically first line maintenance only. Second line maintenance, in which modules are repaired, does not offer a good cost/benefit ratio - the faulty module is often discarded. Second line maintenance, if appropriate, is clearly the responsibility of technicians. It was noted that staff recruitment in the field of computer and network support was a problem.

Computer Science Curriculum

The computer science degree at Edith Cowan University (ECU) follows a standard pattern for the discipline and was recently given a level 1 accreditation by the Australian Computer Society (ACS). ECU has a selection of specialist streams including one of national significance in Computer Security.

A random selection of ten, final year ECU computer science undergraduates were interviewed. The results were unambiguous. None of the students interviewed could perform first line maintenance on a Personal Computer (PC) in a manner safe both to themselves or the equipment. It is noteworthy that none of the students interviewed had ever opened a PC. Typical comments were 'I have never opened a PC before. I always wanted too but I was too frightened'. Neither could they install communication cards, cables and network operating system or manage a population of networked PCs to an acceptable commercial standard without further extensive training. It is significant that all those interviewed for this study had successfully completed all the units on computer architecture and communication engineering. Furthermore, none of the students interviewed for this study had failed conventional assessment procedures and yet they failed to meet both their own and employer expectations. According to Ramsden (1992, p. 4), 'Many students can juggle formulae and reproduce memorised textbook knowledge while not understanding their subjects in a way that is helpful for solving real problems'.

However, computer science students do find employment in the field of computer support. Accordingly, interviews were conducted with five ECU graduates employed in this field. It was found that they were, to a large degree, self taught in many of the skills they needed to perform their job.

Preliminary investigations indicated a similar situation with Computer Science graduates from other universities within Western Australia. According to the Directory of Higher Education Courses (Lord, 1990), and received literature from advertised courses, there appeared to be no undergraduate specialist studies in computer and network installation, maintenance and management in Australia. It should be noted that only the received literature was analysed - no further details were obtained. A search was made of the Australian Tertiary Handbooks Computer Output on Microfiche (ATHCOM). The University of Central Queensland offer PC Systems (1996) and significantly the University of Ballarat offer Novell Networks 1 and 2 (1995) in which students are given the option of Novell Certification. A literature search of the main journals concerned with Computer Science education failed to find any developments in this specific field.

It is submitted that the standard Computer Science curriculum fails to meet the expectations of both students and employers. It is further submitted that Computer Science students should be give the opportunity to study curriculum directly relevant to a computer and network support environment. Significantly the Australian Computer Society recognises that curriculum diversity is 'not only inevitable, but desirable' Maynard, (1992). The issues addressed are therefore: curriculum goals, teaching strategies, competency based assessment and evaluation.

Curriculum Goals

Computer Science is a relatively new discipline with well rehearsed debate concerning curriculum. The 1989 Report of the ACM Task Force on the Core of Computer Science proposed a new teaching paradigm and presented an example of an introductory course sequence that included computer architecture (Denning, 1989). The 1991 ACM/IEEE report Computing Curricula encouraged curriculum innovation especially at the introductory level (Computing curricula, 1991). The Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute investigated undergraduate education and recommended fourteen courses (Ford, 1990) that included Computer Systems 1 (Computer organisation, memory systems and assembly language) and Computer Systems 2 (Digital logic, interrupt handling, I/O and interfaces).

It is submitted that while standard units such as the above are of value they do not provide the necessary skills in the field of computer and network installation, maintenance and management. It is suggested that the main problem is that engineering units are too detailed and technical to be of value to Computer Science students. On the other hand, traditional Computer Science is not sufficiently practical. Experience to date has clearly demonstrated that few students are aware of electro-static discharge procedures or could identify the different types of controller (IDE, EIDE, SCSI) and then install them. According to Professor Lowe 'the complexity of the real world is more intellectually taxing than living in imaginary worlds of friction-less planes, perfectly free markets or rational policy analysis' (cited in Armitage, 1995).

TAFE courses are specifically aimed at producing technicians. The Advanced Manufacturing Training Centre (AMTC) in Western Australia offers a Certificate IV of Technology (Computer Systems Engineering) and Diploma of Technology (Computer Systems Engineering). These courses prepare students with 'the necessary technical and practical skills in both hardware and software at technician level for the installation, commissioning and maintenance of computer based systems and networks' (Advanced Manufacturing Centre, 1996). These are clearly skills associated with second line maintenance which demands technical expertise at the component level.

In the proposed new units operation is at the system level rather than at the component level. Furthermore, we proposed the inclusion of management issues in order to clearly differentiate any proposed new units and courses from non university, para-professional training. The curriculum goals are :

Install, maintain and manage a networked population of PCs to a professional standard using safe, systematic, generic and vendor independent skills.
Accordingly a portfolio of new units were designed with particular emphasis on both management and a practical, inter-disciplinary, problem oriented approach.

Teaching/Learning Strategies

A holistic, hierarchical, top down, systems engineering approach was employed. It is submitted that standard Computer Science hardware units tend to an atomistic learning approach in which students are exposed to considerable technical detail at the expense of a more holistic approach. According to Scraggs (1991) 'most (perhaps all) first courses in computer hardware are created "upside down" - both pedagogically and pragmatically'. This has the consequence that 'Pedagogically, this approach provides no "cognitive hooks" , which might enable students to relate new material to that of previous courses - until the semester is almost complete.' Accordingly Scraggs recommends a top down approach starting with material already familiar to students and then working towards less familiar models. The PC should therefore considered as a set of inter-related modules each of which is then addressed in detail appropriate to a first level unit. In particular the PC is treated as a 'whole' with detail carefully controlled on a 'need to know' basis. The more advanced units progressively expanding the detail. According to Ramsden (p140), 'Material should preferably be ordered in such a way that it proceeds from common-sense and everyday experiences to abstractions and then back again to the application of theoretical knowledge in practice'.

Direct relevance to real-world problems was ensured by using 'real' PCs which in turn demands both a multi-disciplinary and skills based approach. According to Professor Lowe (cited in Armitage, 1995), 'academics are reluctant to leave their 'pedestals of unquestioned authority' because 'they have to undertake complex tasks which have usually been left to undergraduates when they move out into the world of work, such as integrating knowledge and skills from different disciplines'.

Competency Based Assessment and Workshop Practice

Given that few Computer Science students are given, as part of their curriculum, the opportunity to open a PC one of the main problems is that students are accustomed to 'soft systems' in which it is always possible to re-compile or use the 'undo' button in order to correct a mistake. However, the environment of computer and network support is not as forgiving - one wrong connection can destroy a motherboard. Furthermore, given that 'live' equipment is used, there are Health & Safety implications that must be addressed. Accordingly a fundamentally different approach must be used. An approach that assures all Health & Safety issues are addressed and that the knowledge and skills gained are relevant in the workplace to a defined standard.

Competency Based Assessment (CBA) is defined by Rutherford (1995, p. 2) as 'the assessment of evidence to determine a person's current abilities against a given set of standards and competencies'. CBA measures only what a person can do and not simply what a person knows. CBA is a workplace assessment method using competency standards that relate to the needs of work as determined by industry as a whole. Again according to Rutherford (1995, p. 51), 'Today competency standards replace learning objectives as the prime sources of assessment and training program design'.

Certainly CBA is an emerging debate with the development of national competency based standards at all professional levels by the National Training Board (NTB). 'The NTB has decided to establish an Australian Standards Framework of eight competency levels which will serve as reference points for the development and recognition of competency standards'. (NTB, 1991). It is significant that the NTB believes that competency standards include the professions and executive management. This is not a view shared by all. According to Goldsworthy (Goldsworthy) 'Competency Standards are not relevant to many areas at university level in the context of them being accurate predictors of performance'.

Pragmatically, workshops were introduced in which students are assessed in the skills needed to disassemble PCs. It is submitted that the necessary procedural knowledge cannot be taught in any other way. Twenty five IBM model 50z PCs were selected for use in the workshops. They are highly modularised with only two connecting wires in the entire machine - it is difficult to plug modules in the wrong way. Experience to date has shown that all students could disassemble an IBM 50z, however about one third of all workshop groups could not initially successfully reassemble a PC. Furthermore, nearly all of the students had no knowledge of safe working practices. Also, when presented with a faulty PC very few students could approach the problem in a safe and systematic manner. It should also be noted that the students who claimed to have prior experience in this field damaged more equipment than the novices. Clearly 'self evaluation' of skills is inadequate.

All the IBM model 50z PCs were modified with 'switchable faults', designed and constructed in house, thereby allowing the controlled selection and de-selection of known fault conditions. This provided a platform for more advanced student learning. Accordingly we examined 'real world' problems not normally addressed in the standard academic environment.


Two new units, Computer Installation & Maintenance (CIM) and Network Installation & Maintenance (NIM) were piloted in semester 1, 1996. At the conclusion of the unit CIM students had the confidence and ability to disassemble, upgrade and perform first line maintenance on a PC to a professionally acceptable standard - they knew how to approach the problem, what you must always do and what you must never do. Whilst lacking in experience that comes with time, they could operate with safety in the role of computer support and solve the many of the more common problems. Furthermore a number of students reported obtaining full time and part time positions in computer support directly as a result of completing this unit. One computer support department at ECU requested applications from CIM and NIM students for part time positions that became available. Other students reported obtaining employment.

The initial quota of 100 students for CIM was exceeded with 118 students enrolling and even then demand exceeding possible places. The student attrition rate was 8.5% with a subsequent unit failure rate of less than 10%. An independent unit review of the unit found : 80% would recommend this unit; 75% found the practical sessions useful; 70% found the unit relevant to their needs and 55% think this should be a compulsory unit. The majority of students enrolled were computer science majors with many in their final year. Three students were enrolled in an MSc in Computer Science. There were however students from a wide range of disciplines (security, psychology, biological and chemical sciences) and significantly, some final year B.Eng. (Computer Systems Engineering) students. Similarly the unit NIM was oversubscribed.


The proposed portfolio of units and courses in Computer & Network Management are of necessity multi-disciplinary. Accordingly, membership of the design team has been dynamic depending on needs. All contributors are too numerous to mention but special thanks must go to:
J Laidman, Computer Support ECU
B Ducie, Faculty of Business, ECU
G Robbins, Operations and Systems Management, ECU
B Zec, Independent Consultant
L Burke, Westrail
A Delavigne, Computer Support, ECU
J Barnes, Computer Support, ECU
This work has been possible due to support from the following:
J Millar, Chairman, Department of Computer Science, ECU
AC Watson, Professor Computer Science, ECU
J Renner, Professor, Dean Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering
Y Melotte, Associate Professor, Faculty of Business, ECU
B Chapman, Faculty of Business, ECU
R Vella Bonavita, Commercial arm, ECU
C Olegario, Commercial arm, ECU
M Gavin, Health & Safety, ECU
A Zendilis, WA Bar Chambers


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Armitage, C. (1995, November 8). 'Irrelevant degree factories' must change with times. The Australian, pp. 23.

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Maynard, G. B. (1992). Guidelines for course accreditation. [Brochure]. Darlinghurst, NSW: ACS.

National Training Board (1991). National Competency Standards, Policy and Guidelines. National Capital Printing. January, 1991, pp 36.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London : Routledge.

Rutherford, P. D. (1995). Competency based assessment: A guide to implementation Melbourne: Pitman Publishing Asia Pacific.

Scraggs, G.W. (1991). Most computer organisation courses are built upside down. SIGCSE Bulletin, 23(1), 341.

1996 Orientation student survey. (1996). [Handout]. (Available from Faculty of Science, Technology and Engineering, Edith Cowan University, Joondalup, 6027, Western Australia).

Please cite as: Maj, S. P., Robbins, G ., Shaw, D. and Duley, K. W. (1997). Are Computer Science graduates computer illiterate? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p204-209. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/maj.html

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